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Throughout our recent history, marijuana has gotten a bad reputation as being a violent, crime-ridden drug, but how did it get that way? Cannabis has been utilized in the United States as a way to stereotype and suppress and racial identities. Cannabis was transformed into simply a tool used to arrest and target certain races.
Up until the 1800’s there was no federal restriction on cannabis. It was actually used in the construction of a lot of products. The hemp plant was manufactured in clothing, paper, rope and even used medicinally. In the 1900’s there was a large immigration wave from Mexico. People were leaving the political unrest in their country. With immigration came smoking cannabis recreationally. This is also when the term marijuana became more popular since it is the Mexican word for the product. Once recreational weed began to become more mainstream, the propaganda started being published.
With the publicization of cannabis in the mainstream media began, the main message was the violence and evils that cannabis brings. Propaganda and messages were popping up demonstrating that cannabis made people crazy and extremely violent, emphasizing that rapes and wild hallucinogens were accompanied the smoking of cannabis. It was also emphasized as marijuana which came from the Spanish word marihuana, to increase the tension around the words as foreign and link the association with the immigrants that had come to the U.S. for refuge. The media targeted the drug as being the ultimate gateway drug. Meaning that once someone tried marijuana they would be automatically led to trying other harder drugs as well.
The racism associated with the drug also went further. It was pushed that jazz and black music was associated with smoking marijuana. Popular narratives even said that one evil of smoking marijuana was that black people would lose their place in society. This notion came from Harry Anslinger. He was previously the commissioner of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics during prohibition. When prohibition ended in 1933 he focused all his effort on targeting cannabis.
Into the 20th century, cannabis was used to target black and Hispanic people. In 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was passed. This essentially made cannabis illegal to use. The use of marijuana required the payment of a tax for usage; failure to pay the tax resulted in a large fine or stiff prison time for tax evasion. Within the first year of the act being passed, the numbers of those arrested spoke to its discrimination. Black people were about 3 times more likely to be arrested on drug laws relating to the Marijuana Tax Act and Mexicans were 9 times more likely to be arrested for the same charges as white people.
In 1940 Nixon passed the Controlled Substance Act. This act removed the previous 1937 Marijuana Tax Act. It placed all narcotics into 5 categories based on the substances. They were categorized based on medical use, the potential for abuse, and safety or dependence liability. Marijuana was scheduled as a class 1 drug. It was labeled as very high for potential abuse and addiction with no relevant medical use. Other drugs that were scheduled as class 1 were heroin and LSD. Essentially the war on drugs is a tool to racially profile and target black and Hispanic people.
In 2010 black people were 4 times more likely to be arrested for weed than white people, even though both races consume cannabis at about the same amount. While today we have more of an open mind as a country, that does not take away the fact that cannabis was used as a tool to segregate and degrade certain races. Today weed is legal in 37 states. While some are leaning to medical use and others are welcoming the benefits of recreational marijuana. While cannabis has traditionally been used to profile and target races, states have been radicalizing their laws and decriminalizing weed. While it is still illegal under federal law, the number of states legalizing it is only increasing.
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